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Junk food heavily advertised near high schools

Junk food heavily advertised near high schools: Otago research

Ads for unhealthy foods high in fat, salt or sugar make up over two-thirds of all outdoor food advertising in areas around secondary schools and may be contributing to New Zealand’s obesity epidemic, according to a preliminary study to appear tomorrow in the New Zealand Medical Journal.

The pilot study, carried out by University of Otago medical student Anthony Maher and researchers from the University’s Wellington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, is the first to measure the number and kind of advertisements students are exposed to within a 1 km radius around New Zealand high schools.

The study found that food accounted for over 60 per cent of all outdoor advertising, with over 70 per cent of it promoting foods officially classified by the Ministry of Health as unhealthy for adolescents, says Mr Maher, the paper’s lead author.

The unhealthy foods included those high in fat, salt and/or sugar, such as chocolate bars, muesli bars, potato chips, french fries, doughnuts, pies, sweets, soft drinks, fast food and ice blocks. The major categories of advertised food found in the 1 km zones were soft drinks (21.6%), frozen confectionary (16.2%), savoury snacks (11.4%), and alcohol (8.1%).

Mr Maher undertook the fieldwork, spending last December and January scouring the streets around 10 urban and rural secondary schools in the Wellington and Wairarapa regions, counting and classifying outdoor ads such as billboards, neon signs, posters, stickers, free-standing signs, banners, painted buildings, bus shelter advertisements and images in shop windows.

The study also measured the number of shops/outlets in the 1 km zones and found that 56.3% primarily sold food and 67.9% sold at least some food. It was found that food-selling outlets were on average 70 metres closer to the secondary schools than other outlets, says Mr Maher.

“Although this is only a pilot study, our findings suggest that the food advertising around high schools is generally not compatible with nutritional guidelines for adolescents,” he says.

Recent overseas research has found good evidence that food advertising influences food preference and purchase behaviour by children, he says.

“As nearly one-third of New Zealand children are overweight or obese, there is a pressing need for more research into how this kind of advertising might be affecting what school students are choosing to buy and eat,” Mr Maher says.

This is especially important, given that the present study’s conservative classification system probably underestimated the number of unhealthy foods advertised, he says.

“All bread, all meat, juices, and sports drinks advertised were automatically classified as ‘healthy’, despite some of these being high in sugar, some meat products being high in saturated fat, and most bread being made from refined flour,” he says.

Possible policy responses to address the issue might include considering measures such as restrictions on certain types of food advertising in areas around schools, or regulations that help shift the balance of advertising towards foods that meet nutritional guidelines, he says.

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